Political necessities render redistricting 'a mess'

July 21, 1991|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- There's an old saying that those who like sausage and laws shouldn't watch either being made.

Add congressional redistricting to that list. Several Maryland congressmen and some members of the Governor's Redistricting Advisory Committee have differing -- and strong -- views over how the lines are to be drawn.

Some are saying Representative Tom McMillen, D-Md.-4th, should be cast into a district that would combine Anne Arundel County with the Eastern Shore, now represented by freshman Republican Wayne T. Gilchrest.

Others are saying Representative Helen Delich Bentley, R-Md.-2nd, should have her largely Baltimore County district coupled with Mr. Gilchrest's.

While the governor's committee is wrapping up its public hearings -- "Democracy in action," gushed its chairman -- this fevered, behind-the-scenes jockeying for political advantage with computers and maps has led one state lawmaker to describe the process with a less noble term: "a mess."

Lawmakers and other politicos have turned into frantic sausage-makers, tossing favorite regions and precincts spiced with self-preservation into political casings that hold everything but consensus.

"I think everything's still up in the air," said one exasperated Democratic state legislator involved in the once-a-decade process.

On Thursday, the committee will convene in Annapolis for its final hearing on congressional reapportionment. Unable to rally behind one plan, the state's congressional delegation appears likely to offer several alternatives to the committee.

Next month, the five-member panel will unveil its proposal -- or proposals -- leaving the state legislature to decide this fall which district lines will be used in the primary next March and survive for a decade.

The sticking point in the whole process is which two congressmen will be thrown into one district to make possible what many say are twin legal and political necessities:

* A majority-black district in the Washington suburbs.

* A "safe seat" for Representative Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md.-5th.

Prince George's County, now represented by Mr. Hoyer and partly by Mr. McMillen, would be set aside as part -- or all -- of a new majority black district. The sharp rise in the county's black population during the past decade -- from 37.2 percent in 1980 to 51 percent in 1990 -- all but requires a minority district under the federal Voting Rights Act, say Democratic and Republican leaders.

Mr. Hoyer, who would be displaced by such a plan, is the fourth-ranking Democrat in the House and a skilled Appropriations Committee member. Translation: the state's meal ticket.

The Prince George's Democrat hopes to carve out for himself a seat that will include portions of Prince George's, a slice of Montgomery County and Southern Maryland's Calvert, Charles and St. Mary's counties, which are represented by Mr. Gilchrest.

Mr. Hoyer already has bought a summer place in St. Mary's and has been making the political rounds. During the governor's committee hearing in Southern Maryland last week, Mr. Hoyer's campaign faxed "talking points" to supporters, noting that Prince George's and the three southern counties shared a congressional district "for about 68 of the last 100 years."

Since Maryland will retain eight congressional seats, taking two seats away for a majority black district and a safe seat for Mr. Hoyer will leave seven lawmakers and six districts.

Mr. Hoyer and Representative Benjamin L. Cardin, D-Md.-3rd, have been trying to get Mr. McMillen to fall on his sword for the good of the party by doubling up with Mr. Gilchrest.

Some Democratic leaders have backed away from the idea of placing Mr. Gilchrest with fellow Republican Mrs. Bentley. They are sensitive to her threats to run against Democratic Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski next year, to her close ties to Gov. William Donald Schaefer and other state Democrats and to her work on issues of importance to Maryland, such as trade and shipping.

Mrs. Bentley has publicly supported a state GOP plan that would create a minority district but not a haven for Mr. Hoyer. But lately she has been floating that same McMillen-Gilchrest scenario, fearing that Democrats would throw her into a district with Mr. Gilchrest, according to sources involved in the process.

"We're working on something, and that's all I'm going to tell you," the Lutherville Republican said.

Mr. Gilchrest, meanwhile, said he still supports the GOP plan and declined comment on Mrs. Bentley's purported scenario. "I'm going to run for Congress regardless of what the district looks like," he said.

Mr. Cardin, for his part, denied that he was pushing a plan that would advocate a McMillen-Gilchrest match. "I'm trying to develop a consensus," he said. "Whether that will be possible or not, I don't know."

Steny and Ben have mentioned [sharing a district with Mr. Gilchrest] to me," Mr. McMillen said. "The problem with that is you end up imperiling Democrats, and you don't have to do that."

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